Down the ringing grooves of change
Two names stand out in the first hundred years of OC's history. First there's the prophetically named Jeremiah Osborne, who opened the Bristol office back in 1748; then in the 19th century, the firm worked with Isambard Kingdom Brunel on the construction of the Great Western Railway. Today OC has a modern, pan-European approach, but the legacy of its railway work is never far away – lawyers still use the line built by Brunel to travel between the firm's UK offices in Bristol, Reading and London. OC now has a bevy of European outposts as well as an office in California and a specialist India group. The summer of 2013 saw office openings in Brussels and Paris and an announcement from the firm that in 2012/13 revenue had grown by an impressive 14% to £112m.
In recent years OC has flirted with the idea of merging with like-minded middleweight Field Fisher Waterhouse, but merger talks in late 2012 came to nothing. Speculation still abounds, though, and the pair certainly aren't unlikely bedfellows. “Never say never – that's our view – but at the minute there are no active discussions,” says training principal Nick Johnson.
Much of OC's practice is sector based, with a particular push into digital business, energy and utilities, financial services, and real estate and infrastructure. Tech work is a big deal at OC – the firm's California office is in Silicon Valley, while the Reading office sits in the UK's slightly less glamorous Thames Valley. See OC's website for some lovely infographics on its sector based work, as well as the curious claim that OC is 'the only firm to have used an animal in its visual identity'.
In 2013 OC came out and confirmed what we've known for a while now: London is officially the HQ. “There's definitely a growing focus on our London practice. It's important to clients, and it acts as our springboard into Europe,” one source said. However, while Chambers UK ranks many of OC's Bristol and Reading practices in the top tiers for the two regions, the firm's London operation is yet to truly square up to the big boys in the City. That said, it does get full marks from our parent publication for its mid-market M&A work.
Well-trodden, but not down-trodden
At the time of our calls in July 2013, there were 14 trainees in Bristol, 12 in London and four in Reading. If you're looking to follow in the footsteps of the current cohort, it's worth remembering that the firm recruits around 70% of trainees from its vacation scheme. In Bristol you'll start on four-and-a-half grand less than your contemporaries in London and Reading, but the salary is still very competitive for the region, and it wasn't a sore spot for our interviewees: “It's worth it for the quality of life you get in Bristol.”
London and Bristol trainees are required to do one seat in corporate or banking, one in property (or, in Bristol, you can choose tax) and one in litigation, leaving one free choice. Seats on offer in the capital include commercial, employment, planning, insolvency and occasionally competition, while Bristol trainees choose from commercial, projects, planning, employment and insolvency, with private client being offered in the past. Trainees in Reading can do corporate, litigation and property, and either commercial or employment. Granted this doesn't leave much room for manoeuvre, as one insider told us: “You follow a well-trodden path, but people are pretty happy with that.” In the past OC ran an elaborate game of musical chairs along the M4 corridor, with trainees moving between each of the three domestic offices. We've been told in recent years that moves are still possible so long as it's economically viable, but trainees this year said “it pretty much never happens anymore.” There was a sense of optimism among our sources that OC might option forays to the continent for trainees in the future. Indeed, Nick Johnson told us: “European secondments are on my to-do list, and I'm trying to find a way to make them happen!”
OC's corporate department works across key sectors like digital business, energy and telecommunications, and in London there's a particular focus on private equity. The firm has recently been instructed by Motorola, Carphone Warehouse, Talk Talk and npower, and it was involved in a £111m acquisition for MITIE, a FTSE 250 energy services group. Trainees in each of OC's offices said they'd been working on “sale and purchase agreements, shareholder agreements, disclosure documents and due diligence,” with one telling us: “The work is really varied, and you get a fair stab at everything.” Another source reported: “The work is mostly UK based, but we've got international feelers out there too – I've worked with clients in the US and Europe.”
OC for the win(d)
In property there's “a mix of residential and commercial projects,” and the firm is known for its investment, funds and development work. Matters also come in from foreign investors buying UK property and some of the UK's big plcs, like Marks & Spencer. One trainee who'd worked on the commercial side of proceedings said: “I was given responsibility on some smaller matters, so I had the chance to draft leases and licences.” The firm recently oversaw the sale of nine motorway service stations worth more than £250m as well as a £29.9m sale and leaseback deal on a portfolio of nine Peugeot and Citroën showrooms.
On the residential side, almost all of our interviewees mentioned working with Barratt, one of the largest housebuilders in the UK. Barratt recently unveiled plans to build 2,000 new homes a year in London, so future trainees should take note – you'll probably end up working with them too. Sources we spoke to relished the chances they'd had to go on site visits, attend client meetings and assist on the granting of leases, although “there are some more mundane tasks too, like working on stamp duty land tax forms." OC's planning department works closely with the property department and specialises in renewable energy and residential work. “I've been involved with some big wind farm projects and do quite a bit of project management,” one trainee told us. The department recently advised The Co-operative Group on its £20m plans to build ten wind turbines in Bedfordshire. Trainees praised both the quality and frequency of client contact as well as the chance to meet with counsel.
Each of the three UK offices has a commercial litigation seat, while Bristol also offers construction litigation and property litigation, and London has a specialist IP litigation seat. The commercial litigation teams work on some high-value arbitration cases where “trainees get involved in legal research and the drafting of ancillary documents.” There are smaller matters too, which trainees get to run themselves. Many of the cases are high-value and multi-jurisdictional, and much of the work is energy or technology-related. The commercial litigation practice has worked with Yahoo!, British Gas and Cable & Wireless, and it advised Dell on a multimillion-pound dispute with Microsoft over the licensing of software to the NHS.
Trainees in Bristol's construction litigation team said: “The department does a lot of arbitration and adjudication matters, particularly for the big contractors in the South West,” and “there are tasks like bundling and preparing files, but the whole team pitch in, and they balance that work with letting you draft letters of advice and claims.” London's IP litigation department was described as “a small team with big, big clients,” and it's best known for its copyright and branding work in digital business, technology and life sciences. The department counts Eurostar and Facebook among its clients and was instructed by Marks & Spencer in claims brought against them by Interflora after M&S used Google"s AdWords tool to divert customers searching the term "Interflora" to its website. “The work is really excellent, and you don't just spend your life doing pagination and photocopying,” reported one trainee. “I was taking witness statements, and I got to go to court.”
Our insiders heaped praise on the employment seat offered in Bristol and London, with one saying “it's where some of the most interesting and complicated work for trainees is,” and another telling us “I've been doing NQ level work.” The department deals in both litigious and advisory matters, with the teams primarily working for employers rather than employees. Sources said there was “a real mix of research, drafting and advising.” Again, a lot of the work is sector-focused, with particular attention to digital business, energy, real estate, retail and financial services. OC has recently worked with the likes of Motorola and Claire's Accessories.
The real OC
We heard favourable reports from trainees about their hours. There are undoubtedly “ebbs and flows,” and days are usually longer in the capital, but “a normal day usually works out to about 9am to 6.30pm.” The latest nights are in banking, and in the litigation seats you can easily have a week or two of midnight finishes if your case goes to trial, but all of our sources were yet to work a weekend. Long may that continue.
In London OC's office is in the same building as DLA Piper, near the ruins of London Wall, and it has “a pretty sweet balcony with a view of St Paul's” as well as a “kitchen on the seventh floor.” Over in Bristol “the office is close to Temple Meads Station and only a ten minute walk from town. There's a café that does a good variety of food including Mexican and Chinese, and every Friday a cake trolley does the rounds, which always get us excited!” In Reading the office is just across the road from the station, and trainees enjoy going for lunch in one of the nearby parks when the weather's nice.
“We're quite an eclectic bunch,” commented one insider on the OC trainee group, “but one thing I would say is that we're all outgoing. A little confidence goes a long way here.” Another said: “When I was applying, they seemed very open to people coming in from alternative roots – they valued life experience.” As is often the case when we speak to trainees at OC, several of our sources had started their training contract as a second or third career, or with a family. Each office is open-plan, and trainees often sit with partners, “which makes a huge difference” and creates “an open, relaxed atmosphere where people are still working hard.” Another trainee told us: “We're much less conservative than other firms,” and even a cursory glance at OC's website suggests it's a far cry from some of the stuffier operations out there.
A firmwide summer party brings OC's UK lawyers together with some of their European counterparts. “This year it was at the Madejski Stadium in Reading. We played sports during the afternoon and then had a fancy dress party in the evening. They put us up for the night too.” Another source said: “It was such a great night – there isn't really a visible hierarchy here anyway, but it completely disappeared with everyone in fancy dress!” Students waiting to start their training contract are invited too. On the whole, “there isn't a massive effort by the firm to arrange events during the rest of the year,” but we heard of London trainees going bowling, playing table tennis and having casual drinks on Fridays; Bristol trainees having dinner and drinks around the harbour and playing laser tag; and youngsters in Reading going for curry nights or the occasional drink after work. Our interviewees spoke fondly of their colleagues in the other offices too, with one saying: “It all feels like one firm. They do a good job of making us all work together.”
“There's no sense of 'let's screw the trainee with the boring jobs' here; it's more humane than that,” one trainee reported. In 2013, 13 of 17 qualifiers were retained by the firm.